REVIEW: Monkey King: Hero is Back

Nov
02

REVIEW: Monkey King: Hero is Back

Chinese Animated Box Office hit gets a game adaption

Released: Steam / PS4
Type: Single-player
Genre: RPG
Developer: Hexadrive, SIE
Publisher: THQ Nordic, Oasis Games
Release date: 17 Oct, 2019

Blockbuster like the Movie?

The game Monkey King: Hero is Back is a different take on the movie’s story. The very same moving that was the highest grossing animated film in China until it was surpassed by Zootopia and Kung Fu Panda 3. To my surprise this game was produced in association with SIE (Sony Interactive Entertainment). Developed by Hexadrive Inc, the very same company that did some technical magic with the PS3 versions of Okami (was rendered in close to 4k and supersampled down, ON PS3!) and saving Zone of the Enders 2nd Runner from the terrible first version by another developer.
What’s even more surprising is the fact that the Publisher is actually Oasis Games and THQ Nordic on their respective platforms. Back in the PS3 days, there was one famous case such as this one and it was Demon’s Souls the progenitor of a popular series. Will the mistake repeat itself or is Sony this time on the nose?

With much intrigue, let’s jump into the Review…

About The Monkey King

For those who don’t know, Monkey King aka Sun Wukong is a well-known character in the famous Chinese novel “Journey to the West”. A Novel that influenced many ideas such as Dragon Ball or games such as Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Small trivia: >You’ll notice that everybody is calling him “Dasheng” in the game, which isn’t a name but a title: Sage.

Before we go directly go into the Story let’s have a quick rundown on Sun Wukongs backstory within the Monkey King: Hero is Back which seems to be pretty close to the real origin story.

His origin is a magical rock infused with the essence of the land and the sky resulting in a Stone Monkey. He quickly gained approval as king by every beast and bird on his mountain. Looking for more he became an apprentice to a sage who gifted this nameless monkey a Buddhist name: Sun Wukong.

The accumulated feats have become extraordinary. He mastered the secrets of the five elements, the 72 transformations. He gained possession of Ruyi Jingu Bang, also famously known as his magical Staff, from the Dagon King’s Palace, stole Battle Equipment from all four Dragon Kings and erased his own name from Hell’s “Eternal Book of Life and Death”.

His achievements were so incredible that the gods feared him and tried to preemptively invite him into Heaven for appeasement. Little did they know, that it was all for naught. Taking the name of “Great Sage” he waged a war against the gods. Did he lose? Nope! Nobody could stop him!
Until he went even further and challenged Buddha only to get himself imprisoned until…

Story: Do Good! Beat up Bosses?

500 years later where he gets freed by the child monk Liuer who saved a little baby girl called An-An from Monsters and ran into Sun Wukongs place of imprisonment. Finally free, he saves Liuer only to find out that all his magic abilities have been sealed. To break the seal his mission is to do good.

As fate wills, Liuer delivers a golden opportunity. Children all over the place are being kidnapped, it’s completely unknown who or why anybody is taking them. But we all know nothing good will come of it. This prompts the start of a journey to save the missing children. On the road, they’ll meet one of Dashengs generals who’s a humanoid Pig who boasts of having learned 36 transformations and lead an army of 100000 people. Together these three form a party and face the challenges ahead.

It sounds like a story for children and yes it is a very family-friendly game, including the story. The only issue is the paper-thin story and its characters.

The very first narrative issue is the fact that the story pertains that Dasheng has to do good. Obviously, you’ll ask what does it mean? Do you have to go around and help people? To your delight or disappointment: Nope. For some reason defeating bosses counts as doing good and because of that your restraints will lessen, increasing your potential strength. Therefore lacking some kind of logical consistency.

To go into more depth, I’m going to split the game into two arcs. The first one is all about the characters where they are supposed to introduce themselves with interactions and find their way into your heart. Here’s the catch, Dasheng is a stoic character who barely shows any emotion or talking. Most would even go as far as categorizing him as unlikeable because a) you don’t know who he is right now and lack any information on how he became like that and b) he doesn’t really participate in the events between the characters.

Ok, Dasheng doesn’t give much, so you’d think that Liuer and the Pig have to do the heavy lifting right? Sorry to disappoint you, they are more like tools that push thoughts out and move the narrative forward. I don’t know who Liuer is and the Pig as much of a blank paper outside of their character traits.

In the second arc, you’ll get introduced to the villain of the story, while the characters take more of a backseat. I’m not even sure what’s there to say. The only thing you know is what kind of thing it is. There’s no information where it comes from or what it is planning or at least I couldn’t find anything. The only thing you get to know is some of its former exploits in the past. Honestly, I had a hard time getting invested in the narrative because it doesn’t give anything to invest in the first place.

Another thing to take note of is the fact that there are scrolls all over the place. They offer optional pieces of information about the places and more. Like Dasheng’s mastery of magic or about cities past. It might have worked for Resident Evil but we’re talking about a completely different genre, storytelling and especially target audience. And then there’s also how the story is presented, but that’s a story for later. Before that, we need to talk about the…

Gameplay: Lack of depth conflated with Simplicity

As we have already established, this game is for all ages so it makes sense to keep things simple. Sony already did this with Knack so there’s already an expectation of it being on the same wavelength. You read about the backstory of Sun Wukong and how awesome it all sounds, right? Well, you get none of that. What you get to play is the peasant Sun Wukong with only a few attacks and less than stellar magic without any transformations. No Nimbus, no 72 Transformations, no Secret of the Five Elements… Here’s what you get. First let’s start with the controls.

The controls couldn’t be any simpler. You have Jumping, Light Attacks, Heavy Attacks, Dodging, Magic and Contextual Action Button.

Battle System

There are a few things to talk about when it comes to the Battle System. For one there’s the option to fight normally by using light and hard attacks. The raw hard attack is very slow so it’s better to use it as an ender for combos where the charge-up is much faster. You have no way to send the opponent up in the air, so airborne attacks are reserved for flying enemies. Then there’s also a dodge roll to save your hide in case of an attack. There are also possible weapons at your disposal like Kung Fu Chairs, Sticks and Rocks but aren’t as useful. Why? Keep reading and then you’ll know.

This is the lowdown if you’re opting to fight in the traditional way, which also offers the least amount of reward. There are two more options on how to finish your enemies. Those two work like parries and are only available with free hands.

One-on-One

For those who don’t know how a parry works, you push the attack button before the enemy’s attack hits you. For the One-on-One option you have to use the light attack and the timeframe for it is very generous, so you shouldn’t have any trouble executing it. There’s also the eye magic that helps you visualize the timings. At a successful One-on-One parry, you will initiate a mashing mini-game. Mash hard and win the duel for massive damage. Sometimes it’s not just a 1v1 thing but can expand to 2v1. The animations are nice but there’s not much variety to them turning it into a repetitive scene.

Purge

This is a stronger version of One-on-One and is an immediate powerful attack. You have to hit the Heavy Attack like the One-on-One but with a shorter timeframe. No need to fear using it because if you hit it in the One-on-One timeframe you still get the One-on-One. Another safeguard is the fact that you get guaranteed health orbs if you defeat the enemy with it. This was my choice of action because it’s arguably the most rewarding way to end a fight.

There are only a handful of enemy types but that makes it easier to get the timing of One-on-One and Purge down. There are some exceptions to the rule like ranged enemies who cannot be parried but you can throw a Kung Fu Chair at them so that they have to juggle it for the optimal finisher with Heavy Attack. Bosses do not have One-on-Ones but nearly all of them are Purge-able. There’s only one boss I’m not sure about.

Stealth

Not much to say here. You need to use the crouch button for some sneaking up and hit the Heavy Attack for a Stealth KO and that’s it. The good thing is, there’s no forced stealth section with immediate Game Over. This is just used to circumvent fights while getting the loot.

One thing I have to mention is how painfully slow the walking speed is. There’s an option of buffing the speed but it costs you magic AND controls worse and while we are talking about Magic…

Magic

Magic gives you several different things to utilize some more direct some less. You can use magic eyes to see collectibles highlighted, increased movement speed, battle items or just attacks. Honestly, I didn’t find any use for most of them except the magic eyes. Everything else is unwieldy just because of how the battle system works. You have special attacks but you don’t get the full rewards with it and most of them aren’t useful against bosses because they take time to start attacking. Magical Weapons like Staff and Chair are proving to be better options in that case, especially against those that aren’t Purge-able, aka I only used the Staff against a single boss…

Bosses

They aren’t that much different from the grunts with the exception of being less vulnerable and many different patterns. Purges are still available but with more risk, so make sure you got the timing down before trying it. Due to the rise in lethality, make sure to keep some healing items at hand. It’s not absolutely required but should help a lot just in case.

Leveling up

Your journey is going to be a linear one that moves you to different places. Pillaged Villages, an empty Harbor City, Ruins, Mountains, a flying city and a few more. Along the way, you defeat enemies and bosses to unlock further potential. These are unlocked in three ways.

Unsealing by defeating Bosses

The title says it all. Defeat them and you have the option to unlock more magic. Unlock? Yes, UNLOCK.

Unlocking and leveling up magic by spending Souls

Before you can use any magic, you have to unlock them first. Technically it works the same way as any other action game that has a leveling up system. You defeat enemies, get XP/currency and use them to get or improve them.

Note regarding XP gain: I wasn’t able to level everything up to the maximum but I was pretty close to it. Though I Purged the majority of my enemies when I found out about that move.

Finding Earth Gods and reaping rewards

This is the only way to increase your life, magic and combo attacks. Earth Gods are hidden everywhere in the world and it’s your mission to find and bring them together. The cost depends on what you’re improving. When talking to the Earth God Chief, where you also cash in your rewards, you’re also told how many Earth Gods are left in the area. This point here is one of the reasons why kept my magic solely for Mind’s Eye because they will be highlighted on sight. The good thing is, later on, you can revisit all places and it even shows how may Earth Gods are left in the area.

Items and Shopping

Strewn across the world there are all kinds of materials. These are used for items at the Shop. There’s no currency but rather just the materials needed for crafting. There are items for healing, utility and attack talismans. The latter is something I never needed across my whole playthrough but there are perks in using them like drawing out Souls from the enemies and them being Area of Effect attacks.

The Game Flow

It’s a completely linear journey with one or two spots where you can decide where to go first or choosing a route. Most of the time is used for battling, finding items and going from A to B. Frankly speaking, there’s not much to talk about since you should have already gotten the gist of it with everything I told you so far.

Overall despite everything sounding bleak, it’s a solid game. There’s nothing special about it but at the same time, there are no gaping flaws. While Magic wasn’t exactly useful for me it still might prove to be useful for people opting for a different fighting style. There’s no excuse for the excruciating walk speed though.

Graphics and Sound

Graphics are certainly one of the high points of the game. Characters look close to the original and the lush eastern environments would be interesting if it weren’t for the generic feel they give off.

The performance on the PS4 was perfectly smooth with no issues.

That’s on the performance side, on the design side there are arbitrary load times for areas such as Buildings or even fade to black for going up ladders. These are quite mindboggling to me because it really puts a damper on the flow. I have no idea why maybe it’s because they have to make sure the instances are loaded correctly?

Then there’s the Sound. I opted for the Chinese Voices and nothing felt off, especially since it’s a Chinese Story. There are also other language options like English if that’s to your liking. The Music also has an eastern feel to it offering a quite different atmosphere than what you’re usually used to. Until it runs it into the ground by listening to the very same music the whole time in a loop due to being an area for some time. Luckily, this isn’t something that happens often but a little bit more variety would have helped.

Verdict

Where does all that leave us? It has an ok story, ok gameplay, good-looking graphics with low variety, good voice acting, ok music… It’s just an OK game? This leads to a Save for Later verdict due to the slightly more budget pricing. It might be a good choice for children but if you’re looking for something more engaging and depth then you’ll have to look elsewhere. In case you’re wondering about the DLC, I have no idea what the extra episodes entail but the story that the game entails is self-contained. So no worries about having to buy the ending or anything.

Just for comparison’s sake, I’d give Knack a Save for Later too and Knack 2 a Save. But that’s a story for another time.

About S-1

Fighting game afficionado. Plays all kinds of games, outside of mostly FPS, horror and racing games. Twitter

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